The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla – Review
By Sandra Callard
When a new book appears and is described as Dystopian the reader often approaches it with care. USually set in futures which can be alien to us, it gives the author carte blanche to conjure up any situation they like. Author Rachelle Atalla has given us The Pharmacist, and come up with a fascinating but unsettling story set in one such unknown future, whereby only a small number of people have survived some cataclysmic event which has occurred to the world we know now. We are not told what the event consisted of, and it is not really important; only surviving matters.
The story covers the differing lives which the survivors have adopted in a kind of bunker below ground, and slowly reveals that they are divided into two sets of people, one set ruling the other. As in the world which has now gone, an elite forms who are living a life which is separated from the bulk of survivors by a huge metal wall – a life that is vastly better than the majority. They have food and warmth, and it is difficult to see, and never explained, why they have such luxuries.
The pharmacist who looks after the people, named Wolfe (everyone is known by their last name), tries to cater for the needs of the survivors and, strangely enough, seems to have an endless supply of medication and knowledge of such. Doctors are also prevalent but food is not, and so the miserable life goes on.
The characterisation is excellent as the remnants of the disaster try to adjust and attempt to live as normal a life as possible, and occasionally the shadow of life as it used to be arises as the survivors attempt to play games or read the few books available.
The theme of the book is, by necessity, depressing and fearful, but it is when the characters show strains of normality that the skill of the author really shines. Somehow humour, love and fear go hand in hand, and the things we would recognise as normal such as sex, laughter, curiosity and hope emerge, fearfully but distinctly, in the midst of appalling disaster. Nevertheless the book has as intrinsic feeling of dread, even when nothing bad is apparent.
The upper class are slowly revealed as grasping and manipulative, and the pharmacist is selected to become the agent of the Leader, a position she abhors. Whilst the main theme of the story is of unqualified dread and unhappiness, the author manages to elicit some kind of hope and judgement within the bunker.
The novel is written with an unexpected beauty and clarity, with many instances of how resilient and kind many people are in the most appalling of circumstances, and this has the effect of almost stepping into the shoes of the people who are in this unbelievable and horrific situation. The author reveals small, intimate moments of love, bravery, fear and sadness, but also of hope.
The Pharmacist is not an easy read, but it is cleverly composed so that the slowly mounting tension of the two groups of survivors is tangible and solid. Rachelle Atalla is obviously a talented and gifted writer and I would like to see more of her work, but perhaps in a lighter vein.
‘The Pharmacist’ by Rachelle Atalla is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99 hardback